California blueberry farmer Todd Fitchette
Gunnar Avinelis, CEO, AgriCare Inc., grows and manages about 2,500 acres of blueberries in California and Oregon.

California blueberry farmer part of growing US trend

Domestic production of blueberries continues to rise as more consumers demand the fruit

From desperation comes change. The struggles of California table grape growers 15-20 years ago led the Avinelis family to consider blueberries.

“As table grapes were struggling we looked into diversifying our farms,” says Gunnar Avinelis, chief executive officer of AgriCare, a full-service farm management company based in Porterville, Calif.

Today, the Avinelis family grows or manages about 2,500 acres of conventional and organic blueberries in California and Oregon.

The move to blueberries made sense in the lighter soils of the southern San Joaquin Valley (SJV), Avinelis says.

Their jump into blueberries didn’t happen overnight or without forethought. They first visited various blueberry regions in the U.S. with stops also at nursery operations to learn the biology of the plant. They also wanted to better understand blueberry marketing.

They learned quickly that the SJV's climate would be best-suited for low-chill varieties. This would be different than the varieties they planted in Oregon where winter chill hours are more plentiful. Hence the reason to visit with a good nursery operation who could guide them through the planting decisions and different varieties available to commercial growers.

Shortly after 2000 the Avinelis family planted their first 40-acre block of high bush blueberries in Arvin, Calif. in the southeastern corner of the SJV. High bush blueberries are a taller, more upright plant that lends itself to mechanical harvesting.

Since then, the single 40-acre block became 500 acres scattered about the southern SJV from Arvin to Sanger, a distance of about 120 miles between plantings. The balance of the family’s acreage is planted in a 170-mile stretch from Roseburg, Ore. to the Columbia River.

Since those plantings, the Avinelis says blueberry genetics have improved to give growers a berry that holds up to mechanical harvesting, transportation and sells well in stores. For consumers who want fresh market blueberries this means a firmer berry with plenty of flavor.

Though the trend towards mechanical harvesting continues, Avinelis says when harvest starts in his California crop the pricing is sufficient to handpick the fruit which leads to higher quality product in stores.

For his Northwest growing operations, Avinelis says the pressure is on for more mechanical harvesting because harvest tends to be at peak production times when price pressures are so that handpicking is not profitable.

Because of this, he continues to look for varieties that produce firm berries on upright plants which withstand the rigors of the large mechanical harvesters that drive over the tops of the berry bushes, knocking the fruit onto a conveyor several inches above the ground.

The benefits of handpicking include picking only fruit ready for market. Blueberries often do not ripen within individual bunches at the same time making it necessary for harvest crews to return to get later ripe fruit.

Avinelis says crews will return four-to-five times to harvest a blueberry crop.

Hand crews at the height of the season when volume is high can earn upwards of $30 per hour when picking on piece rate incentives.

Still, even a good hand crew of 50 workers can pick about 20,000 pounds per day. A four-person crew on a harvester can pick 30,000 pounds per night on heavily-loaded plants.

“We’re doing trials and tests with machine harvest where we pack fresh and look at how it ships and stores,” he said. “We know we want to get there, but we don’t want to get there at the expense of the consumer experience because then we lose market share and customer loyalty.”

Retailers have shared that a bad customer-buying experience can cause consumers to avoid buying blueberries again for six-to-eight weeks before trying the fruit again.

“This can be a region’s entire marketing window for blueberries,” he says.

Another marketing issue facing blueberry farmers is cost pressures in grocery stores.

“Blueberries are already seen as a higher-priced commodity,” he said. “Over time if we’re going to expand and get non-user groups to try blueberries we need to be sensitive to those cost pressures.”

Varieties

Avinelis buys his blueberry plants from Fall Creek Nursery in Lowell, Ore. The nursery’s website offers 53 varieties ranging from no-chill, meaning they can grow in tropical climates, to high-chill varieties more suitable for regions with cold winters.

The Jewel variety he grows in his northern Kern County blueberry patches fall into the low-chill category which can produce a crop with about 200 chill hours.

Blueberry production starts in about year two after planting. Avinelis strips many of the blooms in year two “because you don’t want the plant to over-crop itself early.” Cultural practices to control yields will continue into year three. By years four and five, he reduces these practices to allow plants to set more berries. By years six through eight blueberries start to hit mature production and yields.

“If we can get between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds per acre between our fresh harvest and any type of mechanical picking for processing the variety is doing well for us,” he said.

Varieties that produce less - but ripen at times of the season when pricing is higher - can be profitable. It’s these times of the season when berry markets are saturated with lower pricing that he says higher production volumes are necessary.

The low-chill varieties have opened up vast marketing opportunities for growers in those parts of the country where the climate doesn’t afford lengthy winter dormancy, such as the southern SJV.

In other regions of the country, high-chill varieties can require up to 800 chill hours. They are better suited for colder winters where plants can go dormant for a sufficient period of time.

Avinelis primarily grows blueberries in the open, but does have some under coverings (hoop houses). These structures resemble half pipes on the ground to help growers control the climate and harvest periods of varieties they’re trying to move into those shoulders of the market when pricing is better.

“It’s one of the reasons California was explored as a new opportunity as there were these absences of volume in the market at certain times of the year that people wanted to address,” he said.

Avinelis says coastal blueberries are gaining in popularity “because of their ability to target those shoulders of the season when there’s not much fruit on the market and growers can target better pricing opportunities.”

Weather aside, a key difference of blueberry varieties produced in California and those grown in Oregon tend to center on their destination. Varieties grown in California, both organic and conventional, are usually shipped to fresh markets. Their Oregon counterparts usually go to processing or frozen markets.

The main reason is the Oregon berries do not hold up as well to machine harvesting.

“We don’t even try to send them to the fresh market,” he said.

Organic

“We are pretty heavily organic from the blueberry standpoint in California and Oregon,” Avinelis says.

Growing organic has its challenges, though the business model has worked for Agricare as he says ground targeted for management was certified organic. Critical to the conversion to organic is the three-year period where the ground must be farmed under organic practices while the crop is sold to conventional markets during the transition.

Botrytis is a major disease pressure in organic blueberries, he said. Once plants start to bloom, it opens the bloom to disease which can cause crop set and growth issues. There are organically-certified products applied to blueberries to mitigate the impacts of the disease, he said.

Thrips, a common pest in citrus, can also affect young growth in blueberries.

“They’ll come in and chew on your new flush,” Avinelis said.

Spotted-winged drosophila can be a big issue for Northwest growers though it’s not a real issue in the SJV.

Weed control can be difficult in organic blueberries. That’s why Avinelis uses weed mats on the berms where the berry bushes are planted.

Weeds were a problem in early 2017 as the previous winter provided plenty of rain for growth. Though the weed mats help, drip irrigation along the berms doesn’t distinguish between the intended crop and weeds.

Getting the right amount of nutrients to organically-grown berry bushes can also be a challenge, reports Avinelis. Because blueberry bushes are “sensitive plants” soil salts and water quality must be carefully managed.

Growing organic is part of an Agricare corporate philosophy.

“With organic and conventional, our goal is to farm sustainably with a long-term vision,” he said. “There are many areas where we can do this successfully and there are some areas where with soil conditions or pest populations we can't keep plants healthy. In those cases, we farm conventionally but with a focus on a sustainable, responsible footprint.”

All of Agricare’s farms are Global GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certified.

U.S. production

The U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council says total domestic production is projected to surpass 1.4 billion pounds by 2019 as growing demand has created thriving blueberry industries from California and the Pacific Northwest to states like Florida, Georgia and Michigan.

Based in Folsom, Calif., the U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council is an agricultural trade promotion group of growers, processors and importers in North and South America, according to Mark Villata, executive director of the USHBC.

Villata reports that marketing initiatives in the past 20 years have helped increase domestic consumption by nearly 600 percent.

Michigan has the largest blueberry acreage at about 19,000 acres. In 2014, California ranked seventh in total acreage harvested at about 5,000 acres, but led the nation in per-acre yields at about 10,700 pounds.

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